Art Spiegelman, the cartoonist who won the Pulitzer Prize for Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust, has published a book about 9/11 and its aftermath.
In the Shadow of No Towers is both harrowingly personal, and bitingly political.
"In the Shadow of No Towers"
(For The Washington Post)
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Spiegelman recounts that morning, running with his wife to his daughter's school in lower Manhattan, watching the towers burn. He describes the "glowing bones" of the north tower before it falls. He remembers his father saying that the smell in Auschwitz was "indescribable." In a cartoon strip, the mouse figure that is Spiegelman puffs on a cigarette, then says, "That's exactly what the air in Lower Manhattan smelled like after Sept. 11."
And then he is scathing in his observations on Bush and the United States after the attacks. He draws someone crouched under a flag, writing, "I should feel safe under here, but -- Damn it! -- I can't see a thing."
He was online Tuesday, Oct. 26 at 1 p.m. ET to talk about his new book. Read the transcript.
Host Carole Burns is a fiction writer with short stories published or upcoming in Washingtonian Magazine and several literary journals. Twice a fellow at The MacDowell Colony, she's at work on a novel.
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Hello, and welcome to Off the Page. Art Spiegelman, who won the Pulitzer for his graphic novel, Maus, is with us today from New York, "In the Shadow of No Towers," if you will, to talk about his new book. And we'll start.
A friend evacuated one the Towers on September 11 and he distributed some of the most disturbing photographs he took of what it was like to evacuate with people jumping to their deaths and smoke and debris all around you. We all have our memories of where we were at 9 am, September 11, 2001. Where were you, and what are your memories and thoughts from that day?
Reading the book would give you the most insight into that. But Art, would you like to add anything?
Art Spiegelman: It really is the narrative of the book. Early on the morning of Sept. 11, my wife Francois and I were heading out to vote in a New York primary when The Plane roared over our heads and smashed into the Trade Towers, ten blocks from ourselves. We ran down just as various people were running out of Ground Zero to find our 14-year-old daughter, who had just started going to Stuyvesant High School three days before, virtually next door to the towers. It took a while to find her amongst 3000 students in the panicked building. While we were inside, the first tower fell. We got out just in time for the second tower to fall just behind us, and outran the toxic cloud of rubble, then went uptown to pick up our son.
And then a 9/11 that lasted at least six months for me before turning into sept. 12 began. I got stuck in Sept. 11. Other people starting turning calendar pages. During that period, I started thinking about how to find the bits of brain I'd left in the rubble, by starting the series of pages that became this book.
Ann Arbor, MI:
Your post 9-11 cover for The New Yorker was stunning. I think everyone felt an emotional wallop when they recognized the shape of the towers emerging out of the seemingly all-black cover. Can you talk a bit about your thought process in creating it?
Art Spiegelman: After getting our son back from the United Nations school, a phone message from the New Yorker told Francois to head uptown to work on the New Yorker special issue four or five days hence. After realizing I was going to be no good at searching for bodies, I started searching for a cover idea, and immediately starting barking up the wrong tree: an image that channeled Magritte, that eventually became the cover of a book a year later called, A Hundred and Ten Stories. It was a Magritte=like image, a picture of the two towers hovering in space covered by a shroud over the smaller buildings at Ground Zero, all against a beautiful blue sky. Francois told me this wasn't going to fly--she's the covers editor--it was too beautiful, just like the day. I kept trying to make it work by dimming down the blue sky, but nothing worked until the screen was turned black. There, I told Francois, it's going to have to be a black cover with a black tower, but didn't quite mean it. And she went off and immediately went off to get it made. I thought that since my first image had more to draw, it must be better. As a Jew, I've brought up with the Protestant work ethic. Fortuntely, cooler heads, Francois's, prevailed.
One of your panels in IN THE SHADOW OF NO TOWERS shows an American hiding underneath a flag, saying, "I should feel safe under here, but -- Damn it! -- I can't see a thing." Do you think Americans are still doing that?
Art Spiegelman: Yep. It's funny how the moment those images were made were part of a zeitgeist that was very different from what we're living through right now, in the fever pitch of partisan battle. Things that now read as if they are part of a chorus of dissent were made in a very lonely environment. Being able to say "I told you so" is very cold comfort indeed.
Reading Maus in college was like a revelation. Both in the subject matter, and the truth of the voice in which it was spoken.
Question: Do you believe that this Administration has done all it can to make this country safer from repeats of 9/11?
Art Spiegelman: Is that a serious question? That's my first sentence. No, in fact, the original hijacking, I felt at the time, was hijacked by our administration. Before anyone even took the measure of the event, it seemed to have been reduced to an irrelevant war-recruiting poster to implement an agenda planned before this kabal even took office. The original trauma I was trying to work through in the NO TOWERS pages was interrupted by my having to come to terms with the new trauma of a highly irresponsible government. The pages appeared one at a time, mostly in European newspapers, since America's news sources had pretty much shut down (my third trauma, the fourth estate becoming a fifth column, made me especially for my German, French, Italian, "coalition of the willing" outlet). But there, I was just seen as a kind of locale Michael Moore, slightly less on message, but offering relatively mainstream opinions while here, if seen at all, I was thought of as shrill, paranoid and out of touch with the mainstream. (Though I actually think, as an Onion headline had it, most American are out of touch with the mainstream.)
So what do you think of John Kerry?
Art Spiegelman: The quote a script that I did for The New Yorker after visiting the Republican invasion of Madison Square Garden, and hallucinating Republican delegates morphing into lizards, "It's not like I'm a Kerry fan... in better times I'd want the more liberal candidate--a member of my own species. It's just that, out of biological class loyalty, we need to at least have a mammal in the White House."
I'm hoping you can talk about your chosen genre. Why does your art take the form of cartoon/graphic novel? What are the advantages and disadvantages you find? Are you more a visual person, or a verbal person?
Art Spiegelman: Comics is the language I speak the most fluently, despite how slowly I work. And cartoonists often are punished for being able to both write and draw, rather than doing both together, which is ten times harder. I certainly don't think of this work as a graphic novel, more like a graphic novelty. What else could you call ten giant-sized plates in baby board book format? I guess Maus qualifies for "graphic novel" status even if it is non-fiction. I made it after having a vision of a very fat comic book that needed a bookmark. This book is a very different animal than Maus, something that some reviewers have complained about bitterly, but I couldn't make Maus III (World War II ended) and I never even knew that these NO TOWERS pages I was making while waiting for the world to end--just to keep my hands busy--would even be a book.
Re: Your "Second Trauma":
Thanks for expressing that very well. Is there any serious answer as to why so many citizens seem so "resolute" (ha!;) to back such an irresponsible government? How is something that's so clear to you, to our friends overseas, and to informed citizens (yes, i think i am one) -- so difficult for many Americans to see?
Art Spiegelman: For one thing, many decades of bad education seem to have finally come home to roost. Knowing what's going on in the world today requires the ability to read, and a lot of what must be read hasn't been appearing in newspapers but in books, where conventional opinion, advertisers' needs, access to politicians, don't squelch the information from reliable sources like Seymour Hirsch, etc. Seems that half the country only gets its news from the Bible, and we, the woeful left behind, are trying to make sense of this administration's faith-based version of reality, in which it's possible for people to fall up instead of down (see plate No. 7 of my NO TOWERS book.)
Do you really think that people don't get enough real information from The Washington Post and The New York Times, for example? I have a hard time believing that the information, some of it, at least, isn't there.
Art Spiegelman: They get it late. We're getting information now, as we're running up to the climax of this political season, but for example, look at what happened to the reporting of Abu Ghraib. Just about when the headlines were leading up to finding out where the buck actually stopped, ie., Rumsfeld or higher, the entire nation's press went into an insane orgy of celebrating Ronald Reagan's death, and after the binge, the story conveniently disappeared from the front pages.
Dear Mr. Spiegelman, When I was studying German I took a course in literature of the Holocoust and I wrote my final paper on your book Maus. It was on the act of memory and the use of aesthetics when creating art about horrible things. My question was how to deal with creating something of beauty about something so horrible. How do you deal with creating beautiful comics about horrible events?
Art Spiegelman: I tried to keep Maus very humble, and actually, struggled for a long time to find a drawing style appropriate to it. I tend to be a stylistic switch-hitter, and my first stabs were kind of like Eastern European wood engraving children's book illustrations. I found the tone all wrong. It's as if I was saying, I can sort of draw and you can't, so shut up and listen. What I finally opted for was something (actually equally arduous): drawing that could look like a kind of handwriting, like a visual journal entry, drawn the same size it was printed, to make it more intimate. Nevertheless, in the second volume, the success of the first volume weighed me down enough so that I had to include a sequence about the unseemliness of the first book's success, a picture of me at my drawing table perched on top of a mountain of dead bodies, with journalists scrambling up the side to interview me. (Those pages allowed me to continue with my project, but required close to a year of therapy to draw.)
Is NO TOWERS a continuation of Maus?
Art Spiegelman: Maus dealt with events forty or more years past. NO TOWERS was made in the midst of rubble. My parents were victims. I'm glad to say my family was only a close-up witness to these events which were ultimately far smaller in scale. The main similarity is just that I found myself at the intersection where personal history and world history cross. My goal in MAUS was to stay out of the way of the narrative so that the visual elements are invisible to anyone who chooses not to look carefully. These NO TOWERS pages require a high degree of visual attention, or a much "harder" read, and don't offer the "easy" pleasures, if that's the right word, of an uninterrupted narrative ride.
I wanted to thank you for "In The Shadow of No Tower" because it upset me. I masochistically appreciated the frustrations : the collapsing architecture of the book leaving the reader upside down, the absurdity of surviving, of writing history and comics. Too short an epic but this scream matches in length the agony of the non-surviving victims.
Art Spiegelman: Thank you. Though as I said, NO TOWERS requires a high degree of sophistication. You French folks obviously have it.
Virginia Beach, Virginia:
Mr. Spiegelman, thanks for talking to us!; As a high school English teacher, I actively try to counter those decades of bad education by forcing my students to face the real world. We read MAUS II (no $ for MAUS I, but the students race out to buy it, I'm happy to report), spend time reading nonfiction in assorted magazines, and several times a week read and respond to the editorial and op-ed pages in our local newspaper. My students are stunned at what our government does. So their eyes are opening a bit, and they are realizing that policies actually do affect them. Do you have any suggestions of other things I can do or encourage them to do to engage them further in the real world? Thank you again for your time and especially for your fine work.
Art Spiegelman: Well, some other people's comics come to mind. Joe Sacco's PALESTINE and his SAFE AREA GORAZDE, and Marjane Satrapi's PERSEPOLIS, a comic about a secular girl growing up in Iran during the Iranian revolution.
Dearborn Heights, Mich.:
On the list server h-holocaust, a debate has been going on regarding the appropriateness of using "Maus" in teaching about the Holocaust. In contention is whether it is damaging to the concept of the equality of human beings that Jews are depisted as mice, who number among the "vermin" the Nazis vowed to exterminate.
What is your thinking on this?
Art Spiegelman: I think the problem lies with my collaborator, Adolf Hitler, who said, Jews are a race, but they are not human. I believe that the masks in Maus fall away to reveal very human events. All-too-human events.
Greetings from Linear LA,
Do you feel any karmic retribution
at work in regards to the Twin Towers? The
fact that it was a Rockefeller project makes
it so in my mind. Why should one view the Twin Towers as anything other than the symbol of Monolithic Greed and Racketeering
disguised as "free enterprise"? After all,
wasn't Standard Oil in business with IG Farben?
Art Spiegelman: Karmic retribution? Let's try to keep it secular. I did read one amazing article, somewhere on Slate, I think, something I didn't know, but Osama bin Laden certainly did: The architect who designed the Twin Towers had worked for Osama's Dad designing the Rijad airport and learned about Islamic architecture in the process. He thought of WTC as a "mosque to modern commerce," sort of the way to Woolworth building nearby had been a cathedral to modern commerce. It is true that taking a longer view, America going back at least to Reagan nourished the fundamentalist Islamic schools and the Taliban that led to our current disaster.
Maus, if I may...:
I just wanted to send my thanks to you for your incredible work in Maus. What an incredible piece of storytelling that makes this essential history accessible and real for so many of us. For a long time I couldn't really understand the stories of my Holocaust-survivor Hebrew school teacher-the images in my head just couldn't come together. But I read your books and I -got- it. I felt relieved to finally understand but horrified at the same time. Thank you for adding a "human" side to this story and for helping us all to understand.
You and your work will forever be in my heart (and in my home, for future generations to read).
Art Spiegelman: Nothing else to say but thank you.
Can you talk about the comic book pages at the end? What are they doing there?
Art Spiegelman: Some reviewers thought I was just padding out my book with an appendix. When you're with pages that are each a quarter of an inch thick, it doesn't seem to me one could or would need any more padding. I thought of the old Sunday comics in the back as a second tower, next to my own pages, that brought a theme out in the work that had to do with the nature of ephemera. That is, when two monumental 110-story high towers prove to be ephemeral, when a 200-plus-year-old democratic Republic seems to be so fragile, perhaps the ephemeral, like the old Sunday comics born in New York right next door to the Twin Towers, can be seen as monumental, as art, as something that can inform our current culture.
A nice way to end. Thanks for answering our questions, Art, and thanks, oh you out there in the ether, for asking them.